The stage is decorated to resemble a red and yellow circus tent with a red and yellow stool in the center. Circus music is played until the show begins. Three young women in slight clown makeup, wearing appropriate circus inspired clothes enters and do warm up exercises, and one practices a trumpet and later plays “The Star Spangled Banner.” One assumes the role of the ringmaster, with a top hat, skimpy red blazer, black and white striped tights and black cane. “How do you like it so far? This is the grandest theatrical sketch carnival in the world!”
“Boo to rape,” says a juggling performer and declaims against, “Rape culture in the USA,” as the lighting dramatically dims. That is the searing subject matter of the approximately 20 sketches that follow. Tackling and exposing the ingrained subjugation of women by society is blisteringly depicted. It also unabashedly revels in its stridency to make its points. The style of the pieces ranges from broad comedy, piercing satire, and stark reality. The comedic results vary, but the overall tone is serious and unsettling.
Author Cecilia Copeland definitely has a feminist agenda but the totality of these pieces advance a universal human concern that any rational person would support in principle. That many of them are genuinely entertaining while being provocative is a considerable achievement. The language can be quite strong, and the situations explicit, but they always suit the subject without being gratuitous. Her work stands out for its demanding, blunt, truth telling, in the tradition of Lenny Bruce, which is in sharp contrast to the prevalent bland tone of much of today’s political humor. It is definitely in your face.
Highlights of these sharp episodes include “Harass Me Not,” an app where a male hologram is projected over women to shield them for taunts by construction workers on the street. The hyperbolic excesses of wedding spending, “$40,000! The AVERAGE wedding costs $68,000!” Strip clubs. Lampooning The Pope and The Catholic Church. Hollywood sexism. College on campus rape and listing these many institutions that are under Federal investigation for incidences. An eerie one with two performers in feathered masks as birds. The news media siding with rapist athletes, “They’re good boys…” The tribal savagery of frat house rape is enacted. Two males playing golf, swinging imaginary clubs, symbolizing the oppressive patriarchy.
A standout is one in which a corporate woman confesses to a friend about being raped by a male co-worker. Her emotions of shame and guilt are powerfully dramatized and performed. Another is of a teenage girl recounting her brutal treatment by several frat guys, which is equally intense.
The trio of fearless performers is Romy Nordlinger, Rachel A. Collins and Jennifer Harder as The Ringmaster. Each displays tremendously accomplished performing arts skills encompassing comedy, drama, singing, and dancing, all with emotional overtones. Their interactions with each other are so highly connected, that they come across as a band of real performers in this surreal circus who each have each other’s back. Often they fiercely address the audience directly without being off-putting.
Set designer G. Warren Stiles’ Big Top representation fabulously creates an authentic looking circus landscape. The lighting design by Darielle Shandler artfully enhances the dramatic shifts of tones of the sketches. Sound designer Anna Libbie Grossman adeptly blends music and sounds to great effect.
The assured direction of Emily Lerer swiftly keeps everything moving while landing the jokes and boldly making its points. In addition, her artful staging integrates the various styles of material and the circus aspects into a unified event.
In Ms. Lerer’s note in the program, she describes her collaborative goal with the author: “… the hopes of creating something magical, something that could change the world, or at least expose some of my experience in it.” R Culture is a probing and entertaining work that dazzles while making the audience uncomfortable for good reasons.
R Culture (through November 23rd, 2014)
IRT Resident Artist Project in collaboration with New York Madness
IRT Theatre, 154 Christopher Street (3rd Floor), between Greenwich and Washington Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission